Ebooks in Public Libraries: Whither, Which, How

The Digital Public Library of America discussion list has kicked into high gear again, in anticipation of an in-person meeting at the American Library Association Midwinter Conference in mid-January, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.

The piece of the discussion that has caught my interest concerns the future availability of ebooks for public libraries to loan to patrons — and whether lending ebooks to patrons should be part of any public library future.

Statistics are showing double the ereader penetration in the US population from this time last year, not counting multi-function tablet (i.e. iPad) use. Libraries really don’t have the luxury to pretend this isn’t happening. The question remains what they can do about it.

The other question is, what do libraries provide? The “Big 6” publishers are increasingly skittish about providing ebooks for public libraries to lend.

  • Only Random House just plain lets libraries buy their ebooks to lend to patrons.
  • Harper Collins sells to libraries, and every time the copy has been checked out 26 times, the library has to buy it again.
  • Which puts Harper Collins ahead of Penguin and Hachette, who have both stopped selling ebooks to libraries.
  • And even further ahead of Simon and Schuster and Macmillan, who have never sold ebooks to libraries.

But back to the DPLA, which has been discussing the future of ebook publishing as it relates to libraries. There’s been a particular thread about commercial fiction and public library patrons.

The assumption that keeps niggling at me is that all the current trends will continue, and that the only changes we will see will be for the worse from the perspective of the library as institution.

My interpretation of the trendline being predicted is that the publishers will continue their unfortunate circling of their wagons, and that the lending rights that libraries have traditionally enjoyed with physical materials will disappear in the electronic age as publishers attempt to preserve their profit margins. Brilliance Audio’s scheduled January 31, 2012 withdrawal from the library download market is another step in this trend, as is the support of many, many publishers in the library marketplace for SOPA.

Publishers are worrying about their profits because those profits are based on a physical distribution model, and the physical distribution model is collapsing. And the publishers are becoming less optimistic about digital being their savior than they used to be, at least according to recent reports out of Digital Book World. So they are hanging on to every penny they can. Publishers have always feared that books borrowed from libraries have represented sales lost. But with physical books, sales to libraries were impossible to prevent.

With ebooks (and e-audiobooks) publishers don’t have to sell to libraries. So some of them are increasingly choosing not to — especially the big ones who believe that their authors don’t need libraries to help them develop a following.

But there are a lot of authors who do want their books, especially their ebooks, in libraries. I was interviewed by author Lindsay Buroker for an article on her blog about how self-published authors could get their books into their local libraries.

Self-published authors and authors who are published by small independent publishers are searching eagerly for ways to get their books into libraries. Increasingly those books are exclusively ebooks. Many of those authors would even be willing to donate a copy to their local public library (maybe not every public library, mind you, but the one in their own hometown) just to get readers.

In the print world, they used to be able to donate actual books. But in the digital world, what’s the mechanism? They don’t want to donate rights, they want to donate a couple of copies, and quite likely DRM-free copies at that, but how can they do it?

And for anyone who doesn’t think there is money in self-published authors, remember that Amazon has offered special incentives for self-published authors to make their work exclusively available through the Kindle Selects Program for 90-day periods.

This a a world that is changing faster than the “Big 6” can keep up with, which is why they are circling those wagons.

So, in this corner, we have the big publishers who either haven’t entered the library market or are sounding a retreat.

And in this corner, we have a lot of independent publishers and self-published authors who would love to enter the library space and are hungry for readers–readers that libraries know how to provide.

Libraries need  the equivalent of Smashwords for libraries. This may turn out to be something like what OverDrive will be when the big publishers have dropped out of the library market, with the addition of a method for self-published authors to donate copies or for libraries to buy copies of their work and lend it.

From a library institutional perspective, the library would miss the big blockbuster books. But we may not be able to keep those no matter what we do.  What we would get is a lot of popular content of the type that public library patrons read, popular genre fiction of all types. It would even cost less for the library than the current model. It might even be possible to have enough material so that people would have to wait forever for an ebook.

Yes, it would be different from how public libraries do ebooks now. But the future is going to be different. The question is, can we work toward making it different in a way we can have some control over? Can we have a future with a chance at a win-win?

8 thoughts on “Ebooks in Public Libraries: Whither, Which, How

  1. Authors want readers and readers want eBooks. Plain and simple. And anything that facilitates that relationship (i.e., Kindle Owners’ Lending Library) will flourish (295,000 loans in December; $200,000 more added to the half-mil pot for January). Anything that hinders that relationship will, in time, languish and die. Publishers, beware. And libraries beware even more. Quit debating whether lending eBooks should be a part of your future, that is, if you want a future. Publishers and Libraries–two hulking behemoths of the pre-eBook age. They had better get together if either wants to survive.

    The End of Libraries

    1. Ebooks should absolutely be a part of every libraries future. The question that is on the table is “which” ebooks? Big publishers can decide not to play in the library space. What the future of the big publishers might be in the digital world is a debate topic for a different venue.
      My opinion is that it would be worthwhile for both libraries and indie and self-published authors to find or create a platform for indie, small press and self-pubbed authors to have a way of distributing and lending their ebooks in the library space. Particularly for self-pubbed authors that mechanism does not now exist.
      As you stated authors want readers and readers want ebooks. Readers want all kinds of books from all kinds of sources, not just the bestsellers that come from the big publishers.
      Libraries will adapt. They do lend books, they do lend ebooks. They also provide other services to their communities that are needed.

      1. Marlene,

        Your points are well made. However, if libraries don’t find a way to distribute eBooks in a reasonable manner (which the Overdrive model fails to do) and provide a comprehensive collection of books from traditional publishers (which, of course, neither Amazon nor libraries offers at present), then libraries will become marginalized and, ultimately, fade from the scene (IMHO).

        Act I was the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) in December. Look in Act II for KOLL to begin offering more mainstream authors from a wider selection of traditional publishers. KOLL authors in December not only made money on loans for the first time in history (the top 10 took home over $70,000), but their book sales improved as well! Gone are the publishers’ primary objection to lending eBooks, that they will cut into sales. Not only will they not do that, it appears they IMPROVE sales. Read Part VIII of my End of Libraries series to see how much better public libraries can do than KOLL can–if they will just get on the stick.

  2. I’m more likely to buy books than check them out from the library, but my mom is a huge library user. We got her a Nook last year, and she’s able to check out ebooks, but it is kind of a hassle (I finally made a check-list to walk her through the process, because she has to use Adobe Digital Editions and such to get a library book onto her Nook) and, of course, selection is limited.

    I certainly hope for improvements (and more selection) in the future. Since ebooks are checked out similarly to books (only the number of copies that the library owns can be “out” at a time), I think the publishers have less to worry about than they think.

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